Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, July 21, 2016

It?s hot ? it?s late July ? let?s do a mailbag to cool down! The football questions are coming hard and fast. Should I have ranked Michigan?s Jabrill Peppers among the Big Ten?s top 10 linebackers? Can Iowa start 12-0 again? What is Minnesota missing from getting over the hump?

I look at those questions ? and more below.

If you're going to hand out honors, they should go to players who have numbers that support their inclusion. For that reason, Jabrill Peppers, no matter how special a talent he is, shouldn't be on your ranking of top 10 Big Ten linebackers. It's offensive to the 11th guy who didn't get included but has LB numbers that Peppers doesn't have. – James Somers

Yes, Peppers never has played linebacker, as he was a defensive back prior to switching to linebacker in the spring. Still, even though he?s a newcomer to the position, I felt Peppers deserved to be slotted in among the Big Ten?s top LBs. He is a monster talent who may be the best overall football player in the Big Ten. These rankings aren?t just about past production at the position. They also are about projections. And I project a big season for Peppers at linebacker this fall.


Lots of turkey and dressing sandwiches for Black Friday in Iowa City with a possible division crown on the line when Nebraska plays Iowa. The visitor has won the last four. With an anticipated 11 a.m. kickoff, there is plenty of time to drive to Columbus, Ohio, for the Michigan-Ohio State game. – John Kiebel

Yes, I love that Black Friday game between Iowa and Nebraska. And, as you said, it could be a de facto Big Ten West title game. My pick? I like the Hawkeyes, who may indeed wrap up their second division title in as many years when these clubs meet. And I like the idea of hopping in the car and trekking to Columbus for ?The Game? the next day. That could be a de facto Big Ten East championship tilt.


What would it take to make Minnesota a legitimate contender for the Big Ten title? – Lef

The big key for the Gophers getting over the hump will be maturing as an offense. Minnesota needs more balance. The Gophers can run the ball, but the passing game has been too inconsistent. It?s hoped new coordinator Jay Johnson will make a difference. Stay tuned. The defense? It is fine and has been among the best in the Big Ten in recent years, but the secondary needs work this fall.


How will Iowa's passing game look? – Josh Gibson

I think the Hawkeyes have a shot to have a solid passing game. Kirk Ferentz never is going to sling it around like Texas Tech. This Iowa program is built on a strong, physical running game forged behind a strong line. But with a vet like C.J. Beathard at quarterback, I think Iowa my lean on the pass a bit more this season-especially if a corps of wideouts led by Matt VandeBerg develops.


Where the heck is Nick Gates on your list of top 10 Big Ten offensive linemen? – David

Yep, I almost included the Nebraska blocker on my list. I put him on All-Freshman team last year. Gates heads into the 2016 season as one of the anchors of an offensive line that lost four of its top six players to graduation. He started at right tackle as a redshirt freshman but moved to the left side this spring and will hold down that spot. No doubt, he is a star on the rise. Maybe he makes my list next season.


Why don't Iowa and Illinois have much of a rivalry? Iowa has strong rivalry games, complete with trophies, with other border schools like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska, but Illinois doesn't seem to generate as much enthusiasm. – Nick Colsch

Good point. As neighbors, you?d think there would so juice and vitriol built up over the years. But there is just no blood-feud between these schools. Maybe some of it has to do with the fact both programs have had extended stretches of inconsistent play at some point in the last 50 years. Who knows? Recently, it didn?t help that Iowa and Illinois didn?t play football vs. each other from 2008 to 2014-a five-year break.


I'm a huge Husker fan. I was wondering how you think Nebraska will do next year? Also, do you think Iowa will find a way to go 12-0 again? – Ryan Lewis

I think Nebraska has a chance to maybe win the Big Ten West if the lines develop on both sides of the ball. As for Iowa, I don?t see the Hawkeyes matching last year?s magical 12-0 start. But I do think the Hawkeyes can be a 10-win squad that can repeat as division champ. Bottom line: The Big Ten West should come down to Iowa and Nebraska-with the winner of their season finale perhaps taking home the division banner.


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